Gratitude is so important to the way we communicate that if we don’t express it in culturally meaningful ways, major misunderstandings can occur. I believe that teaching international students how to express gratitude is really important if they are to assimilate well into society, and equally so it is important for those who are teaching these students to understand how to express gratitude to them.
In her wonderful book The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude, social anthropologist Margaret Visser explores the French word for gratitude, which is reconnaissance – to recognise. When we recognise another for what we receive from them, or what we value in them, we are expressing deep gratitude. Importantly, Margaret Visser shows us that one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to assume that the way we like to give and receive gratitude is the same for everyone. There are important cultural nuances in the ways we do this. In order to express gratitude through reconnaissance, we need to first come to know the other. In the context of international students therefore we need to understand each other’s culture enough to know how to express gratitude authentically and effectively.
This was brought home to me in a recent conversation with a student from mainland China who I used to teach in the Masters of Teaching course, and who I will give the pseudonym of Nancy. Of course, we cannot generalise from her views to make statements about a whole culture but I was able to gain some important insights into cross-cultural differences in the way we express gratitude. For example, parents in mainland China generally do not expect their children to express gratitude to them. Study is the all-important and pervasive goal, so parents just want their children to focus on this and not worry about acknowledging them. Moreover, if they were to thank their parents or close friends, it would seem unnecessary and “too cheesy”. To do so could make those they are thanking feel like they are being treated like a stranger as expressing gratitude is unnecessary in close relationships.
This is one of the main reasons why Chinese international students may not thank their teacher in the way the teacher is accustomed to being thanked by their Australian students. Even if they wanted to or needed to express gratitude, Chinese students do not know how to do this. Similarly, when a teacher thanks them they do not know how to respond and so may need to learn culturally appropriate ways of doing this – through smiling, or thanking the teacher for their acknowledgement.
When I asked Nancy how I could have best expressed gratitude to her when I was teaching her, she confessed that when she put her hand up to ask a question in my class, she had been rehearsing this for at least ten minutes and was really nervous. Although her understanding of English is excellent, to speak the language is one of the biggest fears that she and her fellow international students have and they are generally extremely shy to speak. I learned from Nancy that one of the best ways to express gratitude in this context would be to thank these students for their efforts.
A powerful way forward in helping each other to learn how to express gratitude well is to refrain from judgement if we feel strange or hurt because gratitude is not expressed to us, and to understand that this is not rudeness but as Visser is showing us, usually has cultural roots. It is also important to acknowledge the crucial role that gratitude plays and embed this into any curriculum devoted to teaching communication to international students.